BBC tech strategy moves centre stage

Interview: BBC CTO talks internal cloud, datacentre upgrades and consumerisation...
Written by Tim Ferguson, Contributor

Interview: BBC CTO talks internal cloud, datacentre upgrades and consumerisation...

John Linwood was appointed BBC CTO in February 2009

John Linwood has masterminded a revamp of the BBC's technology since being appointed CTO in February 2009Photo: BBC

Early in 2010, the BBC outlined its long-term view of the corporation's technology.

The strategy was a response to upheavals in the media and rapid changes in technology. There were four main areas of focus: developing the technology building blocks of networking and storage, becoming more connected and collaborative, fostering innovative use of technology and ensuring value for money.

Since the publication of the 2010 technology strategy, the coalition government's policy of cuts has led to the BBC licence fee being frozen for the next six years and the BBC taking responsibility for the finances of the World Service - previously funded by the Foreign Office.

These changes equate to a 16 per cent cut in funding in real terms, making the corporation's efficient use of technology even more important.

In response to these developments, the corporation recently published a fleshed-out technology strategy to show the progress made but also the steps the corporation is planning to take to address these changing priorities.

Speaking to silicon.com, BBC CTO John Linwood explained how the technology strategy has evolved over the past year, with greater flexibility through the use of technology remaining a central aim.

Getting to grips with cloud computing

One of the major areas of progress since 2010 has been in cloud computing.

Linwood and his team are actively working on developing an internal cloud infrastructure for storing archived content and to support new systems as they go live.

"We are looking at an on-demand storage model [which will] be used largely for media storage – that's our big one. But as we start to build out new systems or enhance existing systems, then we would put them on top of the internal storage cloud," Linwood said.

Work on the internal cloud is already underway and Linwood estimates the first systems will move to the infrastructure in six months' time. Once the internal cloud is in place, the BBC will...

...look at how it can push some services out to the public cloud.

Although there are lots of public-cloud technology trials going on at the BBC - mainly software-as-a-service technology for file sharing and video editing - Linwood said no "major big initiatives" have yet gone live. That state of affairs is largely because their value to the BBC has not yet been fully understood.

As for infrastructure as a service, Linwood said the BBC hasn't yet been able to make the sums work. "Right now, public cloud really lends itself to burst capacity rather than continuous-use capacity because the commercial models behind it just don't make sense today. I can provide compute capacity, I can provide storage capacity at a much lower cost internally than I can buy it from cloud providers today," Linwood said.

That burst capacity could be useful for dealing with spikes in demand for online services, and it could also play a role in getting content closer to users, allowing the BBC to reduce demand on its own infrastructure. An example could be providing production companies with access to BBC content held in a third-party infrastructure.

Linwood said the BBC's use of public cloud is likely to increase over the next 12 months, but there remain questions about security and data protection that need to be resolved before the BBC will invest heavily in them.

"Unfortunately the cloud providers have not yet delivered what we need to give us our assurances there," Linwood said.

However, he added that some of the US cloud providers are now delivering infrastructure in which data is protected under EU and UK data laws while some European cloud providers are stepping up their efforts. "So we think that fairly soon there are going to be models out there that will work for us from a security point of view," he added.

Continuing infrastructure upgrades

With the ever-increasing demand for the BBC's online services, the datacentre and networking infrastructure needed to serve this demand is receiving a lot of attention from Linwood and his team.

"We're always looking at our capacity. So we have some work underway at the moment around datacentres and extending out internet datacentres to meet with peak demand."

Linwood oversees two corporate datacentres, while three datacentres that deliver the external internet services are operated by the IP distribution team. The organisation is looking at upgrading or replacing one of each type of datacentre.

Demonstrating this increased demand for online services, BBC experienced its largest ever demand for news content over a weekend following the tragic events in Japan, with 15.8 million unique users visiting in the two days after the earthquake and tsunami.

The revamped BBC News website included an embedded live television feed of events unfolding in Japan which put even more pressure on the corporation's internet infrastructure.

"So clearly as we start seeing these big peaks and greater use of our online services, we're having to build out additional capacity in our datacentres and we're also looking at potentially some new datacentres because two of our current datacentres are reaching capacity and so the idea would be to look at alternatives," Linwood said.

Production teams upload content to the corporate datacentres before it needs to be moved over to the web servers for distribution. Capacity is therefore an issue for...

...moving this data around and delivering it online.

As well as internal infrastructure, Linwood said the BBC is continuing to work with ISPs and companies providing the broadband networks to improve peering techniques and find better ways to distribute content.

One element of this collaboration is to lobby these organisations to enable multicast technology that allows a single message to be transmitted to a large number of computers in a single transmission.

The BBC is continuing to upgrade its infrastructure

The BBC is upgrading its infrastructure to cope with ever-increasing demand for online content, such as iPlayer Image: BBC

"That will significantly reduce the demand both on the bandwidth as well as on our service, so if we can have a single live stream that's then multicast to many thousands or millions of customers, that's obviously a lot more efficient for us," Linwood explained.

He added that the BBC believes this will be "an absolute requirement" as the London 2012 Olympic Games approach.

The other area the BBC is addressing in terms of meeting demand for online content is monitoring and enhancing the internet bandwidth it has access to, although the very nature of the BBC means the internet industry is willing to help.

"One of the big benefits we have in the BBC is that we are a content provider of choice and so what happens is most of the telcos and most of the ISPs make sure their connectivity to us is large and healthy because they know their consumers want our content," Linwood said.

The adoption of frictionless technology

Speaking to silicon.com in 2010, Linwood said the concept of frictionless technology - essentially tech that is easy to deploy and use - is something he wanted to pursue at the BBC.

One of the major projects connected to this goal is refreshing the BBC's 20,000 PCs, 10,000 of which will be new devices rather than upgrades.

Many of the desktop devices will be replaced by...

...laptops and mobile devices, and there has also been a healthy uptake of Macs after the BBC secured a deal to purchase and support the devices for a comparable cost to PCs.

For those employees electing to stick with a PC, they will be upgraded from Microsoft's Windows XP and Office 2003 - which have been the standard BBC technologies for five years - to Windows 7 and Office 2010.

Linwood said these new Microsoft technologies address some of the BBC's usability challenges because they provide faster logon, improved security and allow users to be more effective at doing their job.

The shift to the new technology will take several years, although many people are already piloting the Microsoft software, and the bulk of BBC staff should be using the new OS by the end of 2011.

Technology for journalists

As well as these general corporate technology projects, there has been a real focus on improving the tools at the disposal of the BBC's journalists.

A journalism portal has also been developed. Based on Microsoft SharePoint, the technology allows journalists to share content and research and also lets them see what other journalists in the organisation are working on to a greater extent than before.

"That's driving real efficiencies but also driving greater depth to our reportage because people can get access to experts across the BBC or to people who have other bits of information that will add value to the story."

Local journalism is a particular area of focus for the technology strategy because the corporation wants to provide a high quality of output while significantly reducing operating costs.

The IT department is working on a virtualisation project - Project ViLoR - that could result in many of the systems that support local radio, such as music and play-out systems, being hosted in a central virtualised datacentre.

This project means local radio studios will have the bare minimum of technology required to broadcast - such as headphones, microphones and a control interface - with the rest of the services accessed over the internet.

Centralising the infrastructure and reducing the total number of servers used through virtualisation means the system would have a significant impact in lowering costs.

Linwood said a lab-based pilot of the technology has suggested the new set-up could allow the BBC to run three or four local radio studios for the same cost as it currently takes to run one.

It will also allow radio stations to broadcast from other BBC studios if their normal studio is unusable for any reason, simply by logging into the system. The system will be mirrored in the BBC infrastructure, so services can be transferred to another datacentre if the central datacentre fails.

The plan is to test the technology with one local radio station by the end of 2011.

Tech innovation is also being seen with...

...a shift away from large news-gathering vehicles to smaller ones that individual journalists can operate, allowing them to cover news stories in a more flexible fashion.

The vehicles are able to create a local-area network for connecting wireless microphones and cameras, which then use satellite technology to link back to the production base. They also employ remote web cameras that can be operated by office-based staff, with some also having onboard editing technology.

"The really great thing is it also allows for content to be captured for radio, for television and for online, all at the same time. So in essence what it gives us is a true multiplatform vehicle," Linwood said.

The BBC is starting to roll out a new generation of smaller news-gathering vehicles

The BBC is rolling out smaller news-gathering vehicles for local journalists to cover more stories at a lower costPhoto: BBC

As well as being more flexible, the vehicles are cheaper to run than their predecessors and so allow journalists to cover more stories for less cost.

Following trials of these new vehicles - which have been designed and built by the BBC in collaboration with several technology companies - Yorkshire will be the first region to roll out the vehicles, with 11 due to go into service.

The impact of consumerisation

The BBC's corporate environment is employing more consumer technology and there are pilots looking at how mobile and tablet devices can deliver benefits to the business, particularly for employees on location away from BBC offices.

"So some of the early trials have shown that in terms of efficiency and people getting their job done, particularly when people are on location or where they have a mobile job, being able to access the BBC services through a tablet device or through a mobile phone is driving a lot of efficiency and potentially we could replace PC assets with those assets," Linwood said.

This thinking has also prompted the BBC technology team to put systems in place to allow people to use their personal devices to access corporate services such as email and calendars.

"So that's another model we're looking at from a consumerisation point of view - not only deploying the right device for the right job across the BBC but also where people have a preference to use a mobile device and it isn't necessary for their job then they have the option also to use their own mobile device," Linwood said.

Communicating with tech suppliers

Another big part of the BBC's technology strategy that began in 2010 was to improve the way the corporation communicates its technology needs to...

...the technology manufacturing community. The aim is for manufacturers to be able to develop technology that fits the BBC's needs, as well as those of the wider broadcasting industry.

Linwood told silicon.com that this strategy has been "a huge success" since the beginning of 2010 and is already bearing fruit.

"The real payback has been in engagement with suppliers. So what we've found both with large suppliers and small suppliers is that the discussions we're having with them and the dialogue is much more focused on what the BBC needs and much more focused on what the BBC is trying to achieve."

Linwood explained that despite the BBC not being a massive account for some of the larger technology vendors, they've engaged in a dialogue because they understand what the corporation it trying to achieve.

Because the BBC's fellow broadcasters have similar objectives, tech vendors will be able to benefit from working with the BBC when dealing with other broadcast customers.

The next-generation news-gathering vehicles are an example, because the tech companies that developed them with the BBC are now turning them into commercially viable products that other broadcasters will be able to buy.

Another element of this strategy was to work with smaller, innovative technology companies and this policy has also started to bear fruit.

An example is the BBC's work with Technica Del Arte, which Linwood said is a "pretty small" and "very innovative" supplier.

The BBC has adopted the company's Luci Live technology in the past year, which allows journalists to use mobile technology to get a broadcast-quality video connection back to the office by bundling mobile connections together and removing the need to use satellite technology.

To find out more about how the BBC's technology strategy is developing, see the Technology Vision overview report published earlier this month.

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